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President’s 2005 Conference Speech

President’s 2005 Conference Speech

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.

It is my pleasure to welcome all of you here today. Some of you I know pretty well, some I have met on my travels to various regions and branches, but many of you are new faces to me. I look forward to getting to know all of you better during what I hope will be three very productive days of conference.

Last week I was travelling north of Auckland, on Association business. I had a rental car and the map. Got to my meeting on time, heard lots of very interesting views from the members and then set off for Auckland – fully confident I wouldn’t need a map for my return. It’s lovely up there – warm rain, ponga and tui, gentle hills and streams. About half an hour later I had to admit to myself and National Radio that I was lost. I knew as a woman it was okay to ask so I stopped at the next marae. Two koroua were sitting and obviously monitoring the morning of the marae atea. I apologised for disturbing their work and explained that I was a bit lost and that I wanted to get back to Auckland. It took a while but eventually one of them leaned forward, put his hands on his knees and looking at once sympathetic and curious said to me, “If I was you and I wanted to go to Auckland, I wouldn’t start from here”.

I’m telling you this because it helps to define the issues that I want to have us address in the next 3 days – issues that are best encapsulated by these questions: Where are we? Where do we want to go, and, again, how do we get there?

To the first question – where are we? Regardless of the shape of the next government, I say PPTA is precisely where it should be politically.

We look after the interests of secondary education, of secondary students and of our members who work in the sector and we make no apologies for that.

Before the election campaign officially got under way, we could see that public education was coming under serious attack. What was being conveyed about the education system, the notion of choice, the so-called flexibility of bulk funding and the problems with NCEA was slick, superficial, simplistic and often dead wrong. Very early on there was a sense that those who advocated choice and privatisation had large networks and resources. That meant if public education was to be the focus of informed debate, it was up to the PPTA to join the dots – we certainly couldn’t rely on the media to do it. Hence the advertisements that are appearing on your screen, on the class system, on choice, the NCEA and bulk funding.

We went to great pains to focus on the issues and let people make up their own minds. We didn’t tell anyone how to vote and when we were criticised for what we did by politicians like Bill English and Gerry Brownlee, our response was straight. We explained that we were articulating long-standing PPTA policy, that none of the issues were being properly and honestly debated by the politicians – the facts were actually being deliberately obscured or twisted in some cases and finally, that secondary teachers had a right to express their views through their professional organisation. After all, we stand for education.

I commend the many regions that picked up the ads and used them in their own area to add to the national message – this was really great to see.

While it is always hard to pin down the effect of an advertising campaign, I certainly think that there was some perceptible effect on the education discourse especially in the ensuing election debates. For example, one of our objectives was to clarify the cost of the compulsory bulk funding policy. I’m still waiting for Allan Peachey to reply to our letter on this subject, while Bill English said glibly, time after time, that there would be no loser schools. John Key eventually confirmed that school salaries would be funded at the top of the basic scale.

Whether they would have stuck with this is another matter, because their calculation of the millions needed was hopelessly astray.

The $80 million National had budgeted for its compulsory bulk funding for 2006 would barely cover top of the scale salaries in secondary schools, certainly not the entire primary sector as well. It was a promise bound to be broken.

But they seemed to constantly treat the cost as virtually a minor detail compared to what they perceived as the wondrous advantages of this incredibly sensible change to funding processes.

We could also see from the National Party advertising, that they were trying to paint the PPTA as one of the villains in education. National Party politicians regularly talked about allowing schools and teachers to do their good work without being hamstrung by the interference of unions and bureaucrats. The National Party would like to see PPTA right out of the educational scene because we are an impediment to the marketisation of education, the reduction of the state’s involvement in schools and the abrogation of government responsibility for the infrastructure that underpins the whole system.

So it’s a case of secondary teachers good, PPTA bad. Yet are not PPTA and secondary teachers one and the same? Here and now, I want to challenge the National Party to wake up and smell the coffee. Over 90% of secondary teachers are members of PPTA. We are an entirely voluntary, completely democratic organisation. We now have 16,500 members – that’s the highest number of members we have ever had. And PPTA represents those members comprehensively, both as professional teachers and as union members. You can’t have one without the other.

Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and conditions have a great bearing on a student’s educational success. This is why our responsibility goes way beyond what is conveniently painted by our critics as narrow self-interest or provider capture.

So in terms of where we are, in a fundamental sense it is where we always have been – looking after the interests of secondary education and of our members.

Our priorities for secondary education for the next three years clearly demonstrate this: For schools – more resourcing for NCEA, an above inflation increase for the operations grant, continuing investment in ICT and a high quality physical learning environment.

For teachers – maintaining a centrally resourced national collective agreement, that is founded on collegiality and that recognises the recruitment and retention needs of secondary and area schools.

For the profession – the urgent implementation of PPTA and State Services Commission recommendations on the NCEA, work to realise the goals of the Ministerial Taskforce on Secondary Teacher remuneration, equitable access to relevant and timely professional development for teachers and pre-service education that ensures high-quality graduates come into teaching.

So this is where we are – standing firmly on our own ground, alongside our students.

But where are we going – where is ‘Auckland’ in relation to here? The Conference papers are a clear expression of where we’re going and I want to briefly traverse those with you now.

In the Executive paper, Threats to New Zealand’s Public Education System, the process of erosion is clearly laid out and it’s pretty sobering. The paper was written as the shape of the political parties’ election policies became clear. Many in PPTA were stunned at the ‘Back to the Future’ style of much of the National Party education policy – bulk funding, trust schools and removal of zoning.

PPTA believes that the most efficient way to deliver flexible staffing to schools and ensure a fair distribution of teachers is to organise it centrally.

To those who advocate bulk funding, we ask: ‘What could be done under bulk funding that can’t be done now?’ and we are still waiting for a convincing answer.

The cold hard truth is that many schools simply need more money. Bitterness has built up as schools have had to do more with less and parents have had to contribute increasingly substantial amounts to their children’s education.

The next government, however it is made up, is going to have to address this issue by ensuring that schools’ operations funding is set at a level that reflects the far greater costs that schools incur today because they have to meet different standards of health and safety, be administered more responsively, comply with a greater number of requirements and resource more complex assessment and reporting systems.

I want to move on to the vexed matter of The NCEA. As the title of our conference paper suggests, it is clearly A Work in Progress. The development of NCEA was initiated under a National government and carried through and implemented under a Labour-led coalition. It therefore clearly has bipartisan support.

I think the story of its introduction is a sad one that has done little credit to the agencies of state and politicians responsible. PPTA expressed concern on a number of occasions about a range of issues connected with the way NCEA was being put into place and the support mechanisms for the teachers who had to handle the new system in three successive years. We were not taken very seriously. The resulting debacle has been a huge embarrassment for the government, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the Ministry of Education which was responsible for the resourcing. NCEA has become code, albeit unfairly, for all that is perceived to be wrong with secondary education. Teachers have been caught in the middle – trying to manage new and increased workloads, and help students and families adapt to NCEA whilst being poorly resourced, informed and in some cases being mislead.

PPTA was responsible for organising the qualifications framework inquiry, Te Tiro Hou in 1997. Among other things, this influential document set out criteria for judging an assessment system. More recently we compiled our report, Teachers talk about NCEA, in which a sample of our members articulated their concerns. The recommendations in that report have been reinforced by the government initiated inquiries into NZQA and NCEA and the incoming government will need to move with speed on some of the absolutely essential needs that have been identified.

Chief among them would be the setting up of an assessment advisory service to reduce the workload on teachers and provide sound guidance for those who are coping with the challenges of making valid judgments about students’ level of achievement. There are financial implications to making things work better that simply have to be faced if we are to have the whole system run fairly. As a country we are now committed to this system. It needs to be properly resourced and there is simply no way around this.

If Government doesn’t resource NCEA properly, then it will be privatisation by stealth of our assessment system. A lack of confidence in NCEA has already seen an increasing number of schools enter some of their students for Cambridge International exams. Schools now find themselves under pressure to offer Cambridge International because other schools with which they compete are doing so. Yet again teachers are caught in the middle.
There are workload issues associated with schools offering Cambridge International exams alongside the NCEA. Teachers have to prepare students for two different sets of assessments, based on different curricula, often in the same class and certainly at the same level. There is a whole industry developing in which schools are being offered special deals by companies in order to meet the extra requirements of the Cambridge syllabuses, which has the impact of appearing to ‘normalise’ Cambridge.
It is worth remembering that Cambridge International is essentially a foreign franchise organisation which some New Zealand schools are purchasing using taxpayer funding. What they should be doing is supporting the development of a high quality publicly funded qualifications system for New Zealand students, based on a curriculum which reflects New Zealand’s own particular view of its place in the world.
The Class Size paper is by weight and complexity probably the largest. Class size is a very complex subject. We recognise the significant improvement the phasing in of 1850 teachers into secondary schools has made in terms of enabling a staged reduction in the numbers of hours teachers are required to be in front of a class per week. This has made a huge difference to the working lives of many teachers and seems to have contributed to retaining more people in secondary teaching.

We should remind ourselves that in spite of all the complaints about the difficulty of staffing the non-contacts, ten years of a bulk-funded competitive system in the nineties saw the removal of 1000 positions from secondary schools.

Since we have had central funding 1850 teachers have been added (with the possibility of more to come). Ask yourself, which system allows governments to abrogate their responsibility to properly resource schools?

We recognise that very large classes can make teaching and learning difficult. The class size report shows that teachers believe about 40 per cent of their classes are too large. While we would like to see a secondary class size maximum of 30 students we are aware that the challenge of ensuring the effective and fair distribution of teachers is a very real one. That is why we need more detailed information to ensure we come up with workable proposals that will advantage all schools.

Our paper on the Teachers Council reveals the ambivalent attitude secondary teachers currently have towards it. To sum it up, it seems too many teachers that the Council has been far more interested in its police function than its professional leadership role. The unethical behaviour of a tiny minority of teachers is being used to measure the worth of all teachers and not enough is being said and done by the Teachers Council to recognise and celebrate the professional job that teachers do. We would also challenge the assumption that producing yet another set of professional standards will automatically raise the quality of teaching.

Whether or not the Council, funded largely by teachers, can be both a disciplinary and professional body is a judgment we are yet to make. The Conference paper in effect challenges the Council to prove that it can and will and is worthy of the confidence teachers want to have in it. We’re asking Conference to make a further decision on this in a year’s time.

In the matter of the student loans paper, if Labour is confirmed as leading the next government, the promised remission of interest on student loans will be a great leap forward for New Zealand students going on to tertiary education. This will have a profound ripple effect. It was one of the objectives we had identified, so we can now move on to the others.

To help with staffing in the secondary sector in particular, we need to find better ways to attract specific subject specialists. We also see a real need to retain our young teachers in secondary schools in New Zealand, for many of them go overseas in order to earn higher salaries so that they can pay their loans off faster. We think that some cost-effective mechanisms - such as a retention allowance, retirement savings diversion or study costs allowance - could be put in place to help this situation. We need to consider making this a high priority for our next collective agreement claim.

Conference will be receiving a report from the Regional Boundaries Commission. Although a lot of brickbats have been thrown at the commission, I want to commend the work they have done. It’s a difficult task trying to match topography and representation. Getting it right is going to be a real challenge, but I want to urge that we debate the issues and hold the collective good of the union uppermost.

The Commission reaffirmed that branches are our most significant organising structure and I think we need to identify very clearly for ourselves what keeps branches organised and united – then bottle it and sell it! I know that we owe all our branch officers a great debt for the work they do in organising meetings and running branch activities, and I want them to be aware of the contribution they make to the effective functioning of the organisation as a whole.

The picture I’ve painted of the place we want to go is one of a well funded, high quality public education system, of a network of schools and teachers working together to maximise the learning of all young New Zealanders.

Our public education system is one of the things that unite us as New Zealanders. To quote from our ad: It belongs to all of us, no matter who our parents happen to be, where we live, or how unique our learning needs. It sits at the heart of our belief system. Everyone gets a fair go.

Kia kaha!

ENDS

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